My Thoughts After Reading “Atheist Delusions” by David Bentley Hart

Before I say anything else, I want to urge the reader not to allow the title of this book to color their perception of it any more than they can help. Whoever selected the title of “Atheist Delusions” may have done so in an attempt to grab the interest of today’s conflict thirsty, spectacle seeking, self-righteous intellectual crowd more so than to put an accurate heading on the book.

“Atheist Delusions” is, quite simply, an enormous book. Not in length, but in scope and vision. Hart proposes a different way of looking at the past, present, and future of the world; a different way of interpreting the philosophical, scientific, political, and religious narrative of the West. And not only are the scope of his topic and the ambition of his vision big, so are his knowledge and ability.

I read “Atheist Delusions” after reading “The God Delusion” and I think it would be illustrative to compare the two.

Dawkins is funnier. He is more accessible. He demands less. His is exactly the kind of book that becomes a 21st century best seller. Hart uses bigger words, longer sentences, longer paragraphs, a much larger vocabulary, and most importantly, more intricate and profound concepts. His is, in this respect, the kind of book that I imagine would have sold well 150 years ago.

To give the impression, however, that this book is mere contemplative philosophy would be very misleading. There are more facts in some of Hart’s individual chapters than in Dawkins’ whole book. I suspect that a genuine unbiased statistical analysis would reveal at least 10 times as many verifiably factual statements in “Atheist Delusions.” Hart certainly puts forth his fair share of opinions, no doubt, but it is refreshing to be given so much information to go along with it.

Historical information is presented in support of Hart’s thesis: that the typical modern narrative of the West – of ancient cultures, blossoming in rationality and scientific inquiry, followed by a great darkness and stagnation caused by the rise of Christianity with its blind submission to dogma, followed by a flourishing of mankind again as the shackles of belief are cast off and reason is championed once more – is a rhetorical myth constructed in the support of modernity’s underlying agenda. That agenda is a new conception of freedom, not as the submission to an underlying set of principles that govern reality but as the isolated action of the will, free from all such underlying, universal principles. In the old understanding of freedom, we unlocked our true potential and thus the freedom to soar as we learned to be true to our own nature and the nature of reality. The new, modern conception of freedom is one unencumbered by such pesky, metaphysical guidelines. It is freedom for freedom’s sake.

That narrative which has been constructed to that end, of Christianity as mankind’s historical obstruction of reason, was, generally, what I was indeed taught in school.

The wealth of history, complete with names, dates, and quotes from primary sources that are presented to counter this modern myth was (no pun intended) enlightening to me. I don’t think I have ever willingly read so many historical facts in my life. I learned a great deal, and walked away knowing that the textbooks I grew up with didn’t share the whole picture. The crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, Galileo’s skirmishes with the Catholic Church, and the like were dealt with extensively. If you are wondering how in the world such historical facts could possibly be the subject of a book about the merits of Christianity, you will just have to read it and see.

If the book contains 10 times more facts than “The God Delusion”, it contains 20 times the depth of philosophy. Hart, for a man so well acquainted with history, is also an excellent articulator of profound metaphysical inquiry. I suspect that Dawkins would read much of what thrilled me in this book and scarcely be able to get anything intelligible out of it. I base this on the casual dismissal of theology and related philosophies that was typical in his own book and illustrative of his own narrow scope of expertise.

Hart puts things more blatantly when he speaks of “Richard Dawkins triumphantly adducing ‘philosophical’ arguments that a college freshmen midway through his first logic course could dismantle in a trice.” Thank you, David Bentley Hart, for confirming that I’m not going crazy.

In more constructively critical language, he speaks to the same kind of closed-mindedness which is typical of the New Atheists in his remark: “It is astonishing really, (and evidence that a good scientific education can still leave a person’s speculative aptitudes entirely undeveloped), how many very intelligent scientists cling to an illogical, inflexible, and fideistic certainty that empirical science should be regarded not only as a source of factual knowledge and theoretical hypotheses but as an arbiter of values or of moral or metaphysical truths.”

This kind of talk can easily be accused of being overly condescending or arrogant, especially when it is so infused with Hart’s large vocabulary. But Hart does reveal that he has a great deal of respect for many of Christianity’s enemies… just not the modern, uncreative, best-selling, simplistic ones.

His mastery of history sheds light on the present and the future. I cannot help but share a passage that I find a particularly piercing assessment of the present, as described in terms consistent with the book’s aforementioned thesis:

“The true essence of modernity is a particular conception of what it is to be free, as I have said; and the Enlightenment language of an ‘age of reason’ was always really just a way of placing a frame around the idea of freedom, so as to portray it as the rational autonomy and moral independence that lay beyond the intellectual infancy of ‘irrational’ belief. But we are anything but rationalists now, so we no longer need cling to the pretense that reason was ever our paramount concern; we are today more likely to be committed to ‘my truth’ than to any notion of truth in general, no matter where that might lead. The myth of ‘enlightenment’ served well to liberate us from any antique notions of divine or natural law that might place unwelcome constraints on our wills; but it has discharged its part and lingers on now only as a kind of habit of rhetoric. And now that the rationalist moment has largely passed, the modern faith in human liberation has become, if anything, more robust and more militant. Freedom – conceived as the perfect, unconstrained spontaneity of individual will – is its own justification, its own highest standard, its own unquestionable truth.”

When I read over my review I can’t help but agree with prospective readers that I sound painfully biased. Maybe it is unfair of me to compare works that are clearly on two different scholarly plains. Hart is a brilliant scholar and a philosopher, while Dawkins is an intelligent, snarky scientist. Then again, maybe it isn’t unfair. After all, Dawkins is Atheism’s front man, and ideological front men should be held to decent scholarly standards.

And are we not all biased towards what we perceive as the truth? Read the book and reach your own conclusions. I couldn’t possibly presume to demonstrate Hart’s conclusions as skillfully as he does in a thousand pages, let alone in a brief review.  I have merely tried to describe them.  The truth has always been open to our inquiry. That’s part of the beauty of life.

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My Thoughts after Reading “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins

One of the reviews printed on the back of my copy of The God Delusion calls Richard Dawkins “one of the best nonfiction writers alive today.” Before reading the book, I found that description rather incredible. After reading the book, I must say that Dawkins is indeed a masterful writer. He is easy to read and often charmingly witty.

And so, if you are reading my response to his book in hopes of some “intellectual throw down” in which I mock Richard Dawkins for being a moron, you will be disappointed, and I’m not even particularly sorry to disappoint you. As a matter of fact, I intend to draw out not only what I think is shortsighted in his work, but also what I see as particularly insightful. He does, in many respects, have a piercing intellect, and I dare say that in many respects he is indeed more intelligent than I am.

To be quite candid, though, I am still a firm believer in God after reading his book. Mr. Dawkins’ chief aim is to destroy faith in God among the masses, and whatever secondary insights he may posses, this primary goal is one that I consider a grave miscalculation.

What Dawkins gets right:

  • Whether we like it or not, Einstein was something much closer to a pantheist than a proper Christian, and certainly did not believe in a personal God. While this fact has little if any bearing of the evidence for God’s existence, it is worth setting the record straight.
  • The book states a clear intention not to deal specifically with the Abrahamic God, but with the simple “God Hypothesis” in general. This is a wise choice not only because I doubt that he could constrain himself from descending into vitriol against my God and thus becoming derailed from proper argument, but I also recognize along with Dawkins that talking about a specific God isn’t of much use until you’ve decided on the existence of any God at all.
  • As Dawkins makes clear, and as was clearly stated in the Treaty with Tripoli in 1797, the United States is not a “Christian Nation” in any sort of categorical, governmental way. Nor were many of the founding fathers, such as Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, or Adams, in any way shape or form, Christian. In fact, many of them actively disdained Christianity. We, as Christians, lose credibility in all academic fields, when we try to rewrite history by cherry picking quotes.
  • Dawkins rightly admits that he does not “know” that God does not exist, but that his own inquiry leads him to believe that God’s existence is very improbably, and he consequently lives as if there is no God. Thus both he and I would agree, I think, that hard, mathematical proofs need not be furnished before we can take a stance on the issue of God’s existence. We can work with the evidence together and let it lead us to conclusions that are respectable.
  • The book contains several ridiculous or otherwise embarrassing quotes by believers. In many cases, Dawkins is right about the fact that the quote in question in ridiculous or embarrassing.
  • Dawkins is particularly adamant that it is wrong to teach children to accept blindly what they are told. They should not be taught that it is virtuous to believe something is spite of persuasive evidence to the contrary. They should not be discouraged from asking questions. I agree. Does Mr. Dawkins know that there are many Christians who encourage open and honest discussion, even among children?
  • Dawkins suggests that we should not refer to young children as “Christian children” or “Muslim children,” etc. as they are too young to decide what they believe on those matters. I understand his apprehension, and in a sense, I agree. Each person gets to decide their own religion or lack thereof, and makes those decisions, perhaps with increasing conviction, as they get older.
  • In the final section of the book, Dawkins allows himself to sort of ramble a bit about how amazing science is in general, without making any real comment on God. It is some of the best reading I have done in a while. His passion for science is evident and inspiring, and the specific insights that he shares from contemporary science are thought provoking and wonderful.

What Dawkins gets wrong:

  • The very idea that any religion makes any meaningful claim that science cannot be used to prove or disprove is simply assumed to be ridiculous. Dawkins speaks as though no question of ultimate meaning or purpose, or morality, or of any philosophical question that religion might comment on, is outside the jurisdiction of science. For someone who in other places in the book condemns black and white, dogmatic, unnecessarily bipolar thinking, this oversight of his is unfortunate. It makes the unwarranted assumption that all realities are observable by the five sense organs.
  • Dawkins thinks that superhuman aliens probably do exist because of the Drake equation, which plugs in seven variables and spits out the probability that such is so. He admits that some of the variables in the equation are still very difficult to estimate. No kidding. One of the variables is: the percentage of those planets that have conditions that are favorable to life that actually do develop life. Since we’ve seen life spontaneously arrive from non-life so many times, we should definitely have a good idea of what that number would be, right?
  • Later in the book, Dawkins suggests that the chances of life spontaneously arising from nonlife on a planet that is suitable for it are about one in a billion. I’m quite surprised that such a respected biologist believes that. I have been unable in my searching to uncover anything that makes abiogenesis even seem possible. I would encourage those interested to investigate themselves, with all of the scientific depth necessary to understand the topic, rather than take Dawkins’ word for it on this one.
  • Dawkins starts his dissection of arguments for God’s existence by presenting Aquinas’ thirteenth century proofs, and oversimplifying them. Honestly, why not address contemporary arguments as presented by leading contemporary apologists, and quote them, so as not to oversimplify things?
  • Dawkins doesn’t actually seem to understand the Cosmological argument. I’m sure he is more than intelligent enough to do so, he simply hasn’t taken the time. He is so ready to find it bankrupt that he doesn’t pause long enough to hear its claim. Throughout the book, in fact, he seems surprising inept at philosophy, despite his amazing intellect.
  • Dawkins reveals his ignorance of the cosmological argument in the comment about believers that: “They make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God Himself is immune to the regress.” If he understood the Cosmological argument at all, he would realize that the whole proposition that the argument proves is that an entity that is immune to the regress of causality must exist.  You must disprove the logical structure of the argument, or disprove one of the premises, in order to refute that claim. But he doesn’t, and you can’t. It’s a solid argument for the fact that some entity that is immune to the regress of movement, causation, contingency, etc. necessarily must exist.
  • Dawkins goes on to say that even if we take the “dubious luxury” of postulating a terminator to the infinite regress of causality, there is no reason to believe that it should have any of the properties normally ascribed to God. But as contemporary apologists have pointed out, and as he fails to even address, such an entity would have been the entity that started everything in motion, as God is said to have done, and would be outside of the laws that normally govern our universe, as God is said to be. And since such an entity has no preceding cause, it seems that it would be eternal, as God is said to be. Etc.
  • Dawkins spends way too much time addressing silly arguments for God’s existence that no one makes anymore, or pointing out that various unscientific arguments are in fact unscientific. Fun reading for a smug atheist, but not contributing to the real discussion at hand.
  • Dawkins refers to God using the concept of the “Ultimate Boeing 747.” What he means by this is that a God complex enough to design our world would Himself have to be even more complex than the world, and that such a God would then need an even more complex explanation. This is very ironic since Dawkins spends so much of the book talking about how we need to have our consciousness’s raised by Darwinian natural selection so that we can realize that complex things can arise from simplicity through natural processes. If such is the case, why can God not be self-causing in the same sense that biodiversity supposedly is? In this manner he also assumes that the cause of the universe is bound by the same kinds of rules that bind the universe itself, which he would know is untrue if he had understood the Cosmological argument.
  • Dawkins seems to think that explaining how biodiversity could have arisen without intelligent guidance answers the Teleological question exhaustively. First of all, he presents no evidence that genetic mutations are sufficient to drive Darwinian natural selection. Evidence that I continue to wait for. Secondly, explaining biodiversity is such a small part of the question. What about the origin of life? What about the leap from prokaryote to eukaryote, which Dawkins admits in the book, might be even more unlikely than abiogenesis itself? Neither does he present convincing evidence as to how our universe is so fine tuned for the conditions necessary for any type of order at all. He simply points out that, however unlikely it is that everything should be so fine-tuned, it obviously is since we are here. Multiverse theories are suggested. There is no evidence presented to support them.
  • The many theories and speculations presented as to how religion might have come about as a result of evolution and how we might have evolved to be moral creatures are all very interesting. They reveal, though, just how open for speculation macro evolutionary theory is. It is a theory that deals with such an incredibly complex system in such a general way that reasonable speculations are endless and difficult to confirm or deny.
  • Dawkins continually blames the concept of religion itself for so much of what rightly ought to be blamed on ridiculous people doing ridiculous things. Yes, they are using religion as license to be ridiculous, but the problem is not religion itself.

The book was a fascinating read and often enjoyable.

I was disappointed, though, by the lack of scientific depth regarding Darwinian natural selection and the processes that supposedly drive it. This is not a science book.

I was also disappointed by how little of it was devoted to addressing arguments for God’s existence. This was due to the fact that Dawkins, who appears to care very little indeed for philosophy, didn’t give them the time of day necessary to be properly understood or responded too.  Much like all of the clips that I see online of him intellectually destroying uneducated people who cannot articulate arguments well, he seemed to do a lot of demolition work on caricatured ideas that I wasn’t particularly invested in to begin with.

Ultimately, however charming his wit may be, it is tragic to see someone with such talents using them in such a manner.  It is sad that we live in a world where so many religious people do so many terrible or ridiculous things that he would be turned so far away from any kind of religious faith.  It is sad that he would be so unacquainted with what God is really like that he can speak ill of Him in good conscience.  It is beyond sad, it is a tragedy.

If I could give Dawkins some advice, it would be to take philosophy more seriously, and to use his imagination a bit more when considering what is really going on in this fantastically amazing universe.

Is the Old Testament Full of Bad Ethics?

Bible

In my interactions with atheists, I typically do not mention Bible verses in my argumentation.  I do not appeal to the circular reasoning (“the Bible is true because it says it is”) that is often used to caricaturize Christian apologetics.  In fact, I’m not sure that I know any Christians who actually appeal to that line of thinking.  But even though I don’t typically mention Bible verses, the Bible is almost always brought into the conversation, by the atheist.

For many, the teachings of the Bible are seen as socially and ethically regressive, not only untenable but unconscionable for the contemporary Westerner.  God’s Word, especially the Old Testament, is branded as promoting polygamy, slavery, rape, homophobia, and male chauvinism.  As Christians, we may not even know how to respond to these claims.

What is so tragic about this view of the Bible is that it is indeed so easily supported by scripture when a holistic approach to interpretation is not taken.  Verses can be picked and chosen without being qualified by the context of the Bible as a whole.  If you are the cynic that I described above, I want you to know that I understand why you would come to the conclusions that you have.  I also want to ask you to consider what I have to say in response with an open mind.

A) Christians are not under the Old Covenant.

The first half of the Bible contains a history of God’s chosen people and includes the law which He gave to them to establish their earthly government.  This portion of the Bible is commonly called the Old Testament, and contains what is usually called the Old Law or the Old Covenant.

Christians are NOT required to live according to the Old Law.  Jesus “ended the system of law with its commandments and regulations.” (Ephesians 2:15.)  The Old Law was nailed to His cross and is no longer binding on us (Colossians 2:14.)  In fact, to make this point especially clear, God commanded Peter to rise, and kill and eat as food animals which were not permitted under the Old Law (Acts 10:12-15.)

It is important to understand that anything written as a commandment in the Old Law cannot be applied to Christians today unless it is repeated in the New Testament.  But here’s a hint, there is no written law code in the New Testament.  There are indeed a few commandments, but the heart of the New Testament is a message of love which overarches all of our actions.

B) The Bible actually teaches against polygamy, cruel forms of slavery, rape, homophobia, and male chauvinism.

I’d like to briefly address each of these issues.

1) A full treatment of the polygamy issue is given here.  The basis of the argument is that God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman even from its initial institution (Genesis 2:24,) and that the Bible’s portrayal of polygamy is of a practice overflowing with problems such as jealousy, trickery, and disputes.  If God supported polygamy, why would he paint such a nasty picture of it?

2) The Bible warned those who owned slaves in the 1st century Roman empire to treat their slaves with respect and sincerity of heart, also commanding them “do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him” (Ephesians 6:9.)  In other words, masters, God is your master and He is taking note of how you treat your servants.

3) Jesus not only condemned rape, but even the look of lust that could eventually lead to it (Matthew 5:28.)  The Old Law as well commanded the Hebrew not covet that which was not his, and this explicitly extended to human beings (Exodus 20:17.)

4) There is no denying that the Bible teaches that engaging in the sexual practice of homosexuality is wrong.  But before we claim that the Bible teaches homophobia, we need to realize that the concept of “being homosexual” is an extremely new concept.  What the Bible condemns is not the experience of same sex attraction, but the actual physical practice of homosexuality.  Do a word study on any of the verses condemning it.

Also, the Bible NEVER teaches that we should not love someone because of who they are or what they do.  Actions may be condemned, but the person should be loved regardless (Romans 5:8.)

5) As for male chauvinism, examine Paul’s instructions to husbands in Ephesians 5.  “Love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”  The love that Christ demonstrated was one that was willing to suffer and die for the good of another, even when wronged.  That is the love that the Bible commands men to have for women, and God warns those who fail to treat their wives with understanding or show them honor that He will not even hear their prayers (1 Peter 3:7.)

To say that the Bible teaches us to mistreat women, hate homosexuals, or practice injustice in general is to ignore a great deal of Biblical teaching to the contrary in order to falsely represent a few select passages.

I know what you are thinking.  Sure, the Bible speaks out against these practices, mostly in the New Testament, but God clearly supports the same practices in His law!  The Bible contradicts itself and therefore can be used to teach whatever anyone wants.  This is what brings us to the crux of the matter.

C) It is a false assumption that when God makes provisions for a behavior in His law, He supports those behaviors.  Here are three examples that clearly demonstrate that this is not the case:

1) God made provisions in the law for divorce for almost any reason (Deuteronomy 24:1-4,) but Jesus taught that God made these provisions because of the hardness of their hearts, “but from the beginning it has not been this way.” (Matthew 19:8.)

2) Deuteronomy 17 is full of commandments concerning the future time when Israel would have a king, yet when they did ask for a king, God said that they were rejecting Him in the process (1 Samuel 8:7.)

3) Even as the Old Law permitted polygamy, God specified that in His New Testament church, He wanted the leaders to be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2.)

The principle is clear: just because God makes provisions for a practice in His law does NOT mean that He wants it to happen.  The law was simply a “guardian” or “tutor” to watch over God’s chosen people until the Messiah came (Galatians 3:24.)  It was not capable of eradicating sin, nor was it intended to do so (Romans 8:3.)  I suspect in fact that if God had indeed outlawed everything that was a sin, we would call Him a dictator.

In closing, I also want to point out that the entire Old Law rested on the two greatest commandments, found in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, to love God with all of your hearts and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Upon these two commandments hung the implementation of everything else (Matthew 22:36-40.)

Key to this discussion is that not only can the Old Testament not be honestly used by Christians to support immoral practices under the New Covenant, but even when a practice was provided for under the Old Law, informed theology makes it clear that this did not indicate God’s support of that practice.

Has Science Done Away With Faith?

science faith

In debates at the center of science, philosophy, and religion it is common to hear claims like these:

“you have your faith but I have actual science,” or “religion is just having faith when there is no evidence, but science is actually based on facts.”

These statements are received with frustration by believers who assert that “science is just another belief system, just like religion” or “believing in evolution actually requires more faith than believing in God!”

These two groups of people are clearly talking past each other.  They don’t even speak the same language.  Literally.  Because they have defined their terms differently.  When people disagree about the very meanings of the terms that they are using, not only is it virtually impossible for them to reach meaningful conclusions together, they can’t even argue with each other with much coherence!

We will never get to the heart of these discussions until we learn to speak each other’s languages.  So, this post is really all about definition of terms.

Science.

What is science?  Is it a process of gathering information and recognizing patterns in the world through observation and repeatable experimentation?

Or is it a somewhat nebulous group of millions of academics and researchers who claim to use this method, and the composite body of conclusions that they have drawn?

Faith.

Is it a blind leap into the dark based on tradition and subjective feelings of spirituality or compulsion?  Is it an insistence on holding certain views despite a lack of evidence, or even in the face or substantial contrary evidence?

Or is it a conclusion drawn where mathematic certainty is impossible, but where much real world evidence is evaluated by reason in order to make an educated and intellectually honest decision?

To complicate matters, “religion” is often used interchangeably with faith, though its definition is much more narrow and indicates not a mental process but a body of practices or doctrines.  Similarly “evolution” is sometimes used interchangeably with science, though it is neither a process of learning nor the body of evidence gathered by a branch of academia, but simply one prominent theory within that branch.

Before we even start arguing about religion or evolution, we at least ought to agree on the role of science and faith in the discussion.

Here is why atheists and believers keep talking past each other:

If faith is a belief based almost solely on superstition, subjective experience, or tradition (as atheists understand it to be), and science is the knowledge of patterns in the world gained through repeatable, testable experiments (as they believe all conclusions in the scientific community to be), then science offers far greater certainty than faith, and ought to supersede it.

But on the other hand, if faith is a conclusion, be it one without 100% objective certainty, reached by the use of reason acting upon verifiable evidence, and science is the branch of human institutions that adhere to the scientific method, then indeed, the two walk hand in hand rather than being mutually exclusive.

The contemporary atheist often tends to confuse the two definitions of science that I have provided, not even recognizing a distinction.  He understands all conclusions supported by the scientific community to be fact simply because they were reached by a community that claims to observe the scientific method.  But in so doing he not only grossly underestimates the possibility of human error, he also turns a blind eye to the truth about countless “scientific facts” that are neither testable nor repeatable but are rather touted for their “explanatory and predictive mechanisms” and rely on various untestable assumptions.

To take any assertion made by the majority of the scientific community, and claim that it is fact simply because “it’s science” without actually presenting the nature of the experiments, data, and conclusions for yourself, is nothing more than the logical fallacy of appeal to authority.

Of course, the atheist would argue, the science that has disproven God is so complicated that you’ll just have to trust the experts.  It is indeed valid, but an appeal to authority is necessary since you wouldn’t understand the explanation.  This is why you often here so little science in a debate about the existence of God, why it is rare to see much scientific depth from atheists themselves in their arguments.

You want to talk science?  Let’s actually talk science.  But if you want to appeal to the authority of the scientific community, which in large part has strayed from the testable and repeatable to the “explanatory” and “predictive,” I won’t be convinced.  We learned from the dark ages not to “trust the experts” who have the “special knowledge.”

Faith does not need to be blind.  It is not always based on tradition or spiritual compulsion.  In my case, it is a conclusion I’ve drawn about what I can’t know for sure, based on all of the things that I can know.  Much of those things that I can know are indeed derived from science.  And they are repeatable and testable.  In fact, I dismiss nothing from science that is repeatable and testable, and yet I find it beautifully compatible with my faith.

Read more of my articles or start a discussion in the comments if you’d like to learn more.

How Do We Decide What is Right and What is Wrong?

good and evil

Regardless of varying religious beliefs or the lack thereof, we live in a world of moral values.  There is a sense of moral obligation that we all possess which compels us to label some behaviors as good and others as evil.  I’m not arguing in this post that this morality is universal or objective or God given.  I’m simply establishing that we virtually all feel it.

Our sense of morality affects us individually to guide our behaviors, for instance, compelling us to tell the cashier when they give us too much change.  It affects us as a society to create laws against everything from arson to false advertising to murder.  It even prompts militant atheists to cry out against the existence of a God that would allow the things that they see around them which are morally objectionable.

My question today is not why we have this moral sense.  Some say it came to us through millions of years of evolution because it fostered the safety of the individual in the context of the group.  Some say it was given to us by God or is determined by His nature.  Some say it is actually all an illusion, completely constructed in human minds.  There is plenty to say on these matters, but my question is more universal and more practical.

How do we determine what is right and wrong?  This is an extremely practical question because we will all be required to make countless personal decisions, to formulate numerous opinions, and as members of society to collectively create laws and enforce them, all in light of moral principles.

At this point we could all immediately begin disagreeing about how to determine morality.  One could claim that we should get it from the words of the Bible.  Another that we must all decide for ourselves and can make no universal pronouncements.  Another that a set of principles such as love or tolerance should be systematically applied to human behavior.

But I’d like to zero in on the nature of our disagreement for a moment and see if I can’t give a general answer that we can all agree on: morality is determined by purpose.  One of my favorite speakers, Dr. Ravi Zacharias identifies this core principal of morality in many of his talks.  That which violates the ultimate purpose of a thing is morally wrong.

So if men are meant to live in harmony, if they are intended to live in freedom, if the goal of their existence is to live in joy and peace, then violating these purposes is morally wrong.

The reason why I think we can at least all agree on this principle is because it allows either God or man to do the purposing or intending or goal setting.  It simply reveals the inextricable link between purpose and morality.  The desired end of our existence determines how we ought to live.

This is where we must part ways.  If we differ in our opinions of our purpose, we will differ in our opinions on morality.

For those who do not believe in the supernatural, any ultimate purpose is an illusion.  Our lives have personal purpose and meaning, but objectively speaking these purposes are meaningless.  It follows that for atheists, morality simply must be boiled down to a matter of opinion, chance, or personal preservation.  There is no universal morality if we do not all have the same purpose.

It should not be surprising, then, when great minds attempt to systematically derive a universal morality from materialism and fail.

Now let me take you a step further down this road.  If morals are literally a matter of opinion with no higher authority to call upon because there is no ultimate purpose in the universe, then majority opinion goes.  Or, in a less democratic system, the strongest and bravest prevail in establishing their own wills.

The believer, on the other hand, believes in a supernaturally determined universal purpose, and thus he can honestly appeal to this universal purpose in order to determine universal moral principles.

Two closing observations.  1) For the atheist, there are no moral authorities more final than personal opinion and personal power.  2) The moral argument against God is self-defeating.  When an atheist claims that there is no God because of the evil in the world, he is by necessity sharing an opinion, not a proof.

Does the Bible Condone Polygamy?

polygamy

Entertainer and Atheist Penn Jillette claims that nothing will make you an atheist faster than reading the Bible.  I have read through the entire Bible cover to cover multiple times, and my faith has grown through the experience.

How can this be?  Rationally thinking adults reading through the same book and coming to drastically different conclusions?  We certainly both have our own biases, and those play an important role.  But I want to challenge one of the misunderstandings that those outside the faith often have about the Bible.  It does not condone polygamy.

First of all, the Bible makes it clear that the pattern for marriage is a union between one man and one woman.

When marriage is instituted by God, Adam is given just one wife, Eve.  In Genesis 2:24 we are told that “a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This idea is repeated in Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:7, and Ephesians 5:31.  The pronouncement says “wife” and not “wives.”  Furthermore, a man can only leave his father and mother once (unless he goes back to them again, thus leaving his first wife.)

I would also suggest that a man can only experience the true union of two into one in a marriage to one and only one woman.  Thus the requirement that an overseer be the “husband of one wife” (literally: a one woman man) in 1 Timothy 3:2.

So maybe the pattern was for one man and one woman, but isn’t the Old Testament full of polygamy that God supports?  Actually, I think that Timothy Keller – summarizing the work of Berkeley Jewish scholar Robert Alter – sums up nicely how the Bible portrays polygamy: “In every generation polygamy wreaks havoc. Having multiple wives is an absolute disaster—socially, culturally, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and relationally.”

God tolerated polygamy, but He was also very strait forward in his recording of its terrible results.

In Genesis 30, tension between sister-wives Rachel and Leah reaches the boiling point over an argument about some mandrakes that turns into an argument about who gets to sleep with their husband.  Centuries later, Solomon’s many wives turn him away from God and an entire family dynasty is brought to a screeching halt.  At every turn in fact, polygamy is causing rivalry and distress among participants.  If God supported polygamy, you would think His book would hold it up as beautiful, not portray it as a train wreck.

So when those like Penn Jillette read through the Bible, they see that God condones polygamy.  When I read through the Bible, I see His beautiful plan for one man and one woman, as well as the freedom that He gives His people to deviate from that plan, and the painful results that follow.

What implications could this principle have for us today?  For those determined to undermine the Bible, it is a reminder to read with an open mind instead of a hidden agenda.  For those who put their faith in the Bible, it is a reminder that a voice may not come out of the clouds and rebuke all of Christendom anytime someone deviates from God’s original plan.

It is not enough to assume that our lives are in line with His will simply because He has not spoken to us from a cloud.  We must go back to His patterns and invest in understanding the theology of the Word.

What Makes Christianity Special?

Cross of Jesus Christ

Poet and journalist Steve Turner satirically remarks in his poem “Creed:”

“We believe that all religions are basically the same; at least the ones we read were. They all believe in love and goodness.  They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.”

Indeed, to claim that “all religions are basically one” or that “all religions lead to the same god” is logically inconsistent.  If you’re not convinced, this article should make my reasoning clear.

The Christian faith, as revealed in the Bible itself, has amazing, beautiful, transforming power in it.  It is is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.  It pierces deep into our hearts, enabling it to judge the thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12).

I would like to define some of what separates Christianity from other worldviews, and the power that it has.

1) Christianity gives ultimate meaning and purpose to life.

In this respect Christianity is separated from atheism.  The Bible gives us a view of a cosmic, beautiful, incredibly important story unfolding.  It is a war between good and evil, between love and lawlessness.  It gives us a reason to live and it shapes our lives.

Of course an atheist can live with a personal sense of existentially constructed meaning.  But that meaning lacks the authority to empower his actions in his moments of greatest need.  It is essentially utilitarian.  It is a personally constructed illusion that he needs to survive, and thus he doesn’t actually believe in it.  It is a product of random chance that happened by sheer luck to serve him for a time, and he is well aware of it.  Death will rob him of it entirely.

2) Christianity motivates us to do the right thing.

Once again, this separates us from atheism.

Can an atheist be moral?  Of course!  But behind closed doors, or when things get tough, he truly has no incentive to seek the common good over his own preservation and fulfillment.  His morality, like his meaning and purpose, is utilitarian and thus extremely flimsy.  He can live by rules, but He has no reason not to abandon them if it seems favorable to him to do so.

3) Christianity does justice to the importance of the heart.

This separates us from Islam.  Christianity is not a legalistic religion.  It is not chiefly about rule following.  A muslim is justified when his good deeds outweigh his bad ones.

In a legalistic religion, rituals become compulsive.  The heart is not addressed because the actions are considered sufficient.

Christianity, on the other hand, emphasizes the heart first, and actions follow naturally.  Consider Jesus’ brilliant “Sermon on the Mount” that begins in Matthew 5 for examples.

4) Christianity is ambitious.

This separates us from Buddhism.  A central goal of Buddhism is to become free from all desire.  Desire is understood to cause pain, and eliminating desire eliminates pain and brings us to enlightenment.  There is no distinction between desires for right or wrong ends.  All desire is to be eliminated.

Christianity exalts the desire for that which is right, while rejecting that which is wrong.  It is ambitious enough to expect something more wonderful to be accomplished than an escape from all ambition.

5) Christianity speaks seriously of our sins, but does not deprive us of our dignity.

The Bible goes so far as to say that we are all wicked.  Not one of us is good.  It holds no delusions about the nature of man (Romans 3:10).

It also indicates that we were made for great things, made just a little lower than the angels (Psalm  8:3-9), and that with the power and renewal that comes only from God we can be righteous (John 3).

6) Christianity teaches us how to forgive others and ourselves.

In this way I believe that Christianity outshines any other worldview.  The Bible teaches that God is Love.  Love is willing to suffer for the good of others.  Thus Jesus Christ came to the cross to suffer for our sakes, so that He might forgive us.

Any time you forgive someone, you are absorbing the evil that they have done rather than compounding it.  The incredible teaching of Christianity, which no other religion dares to suggest, is that God Himself, our Creator, is willing to suffer in order to absorb our evil.  In this way the relationship between us and Him is held together.

It follows that we have no right to withhold forgiveness from others.  We are not justified in withholding mercy when we are so clearly in need of it (Matthew 18:21-35).

In conclusion: No worldview meets mankind where he is like Christianity.  Its meaning, purpose, and morals are universal and objective, giving them the necessary weight to serve us in our most difficult hours.  It emphasizes the transformation of our hearts, not simply of our actions.  It gives us an ambitious outlook on the outcome of this amazing battle that we see around us.  It gently but firmly insists that we accept the wickedness of our own hearts, and then proceeds to flood them with the grace and hope necessary to become something more.  And most importantly, it teaches us the truth about love, the only force strong enough to hold us together.